If there’s one thing that I have learned on my travels, perhaps above all others, it’s to make my own opinions about places. Even if the vast majority of opinion about a place is overwhelmingly negative I like to make my own mind up. Thus, I have found that I didn’t get hassled every moment I walked down the street in Morocco, the nightlife in Buenos Aires was better than that in Rio De Janeiro, and Belfast is one of the friendliest cities I have visited in the UK. It was with this maxim in mind that I approached our recent trip to Cambodia. So much of what I had heard from fellow travellers of Phnom Penh, the capital city, was derogatory. All wise opinion seemed to suggest spending as little time as possible there before heading north to Siem Reap and the wonders of Angkor. One friend even stated that she “wouldn’t even spend an hour there.” I’m not going to state that these other travellers were wrong in their opinions, only that my experiences of this bustling and vibrant city, left me with an entirely different impression.
At first glance, it’s easy to see why so many people dislike Phnom Penh. It’s noisy, chaotic, polluted, and you do see some extreme poverty. However, this is the case in many other Asian capital cities, including some with much less maligned reputations, such as Bangkok. It is my preference to judge a city on it’s atmosphere, and Phnom Penh has this in abundance. Upon leaving the airport, our senses were immediately assaulted with a cacophony of noise and riot of colour. Staring open-mouthed from the taxi we wondered just how many people could fit on one motorbike. The most we ever saw was six, although three seems to be about standard.
Another thing that struck me instantly, is how much of daily life takes place by the side of a road. Pavements do exist in Phnom Penh but they are most definitely not for walking on. Open shopfronts spill out onto the street, jostling for space with workshops, cafes, and anybody else that is trying to scratch some sort of living. Pedestrians just have to walk in the road and try to dodge the multitude of tuk-tuks and dangerously overladen cargo vehicles. Just walking down the road can be a truly hair-raising experience. As for trying to cross, you are pretty much taking your life in your hands every time you attempt it!
After settling into our hostel we ventured out into the chaos. Our first port of call was the riverfront area. where a long promenade overlooks the broad Tonle Sap river. As we arrived on a Saturday night, the whole area was alive with street artists, and strangely a bunch of middle aged ladies performing some sort of aerobics display, watched on by engrossed youngsters from their mopeds. Sadly my camera decided to be temperamental at this point, so unfortunately I have no pictorial evidence of this truly bizarre spectacle. The area is also home to pretty much all the best restaurants in the city.
The next morning after some much needed rest, we headed to Wat Phnom, the spiritual centre of the city, and the place that it takes it’s name from. Situated on a small hill, a beautiful Buddhist temple nestles between the trees. Climbing up, it feels like an oasis of tranquility away from the madness of below. Despite it’s significance it was also remarkably free of tourists.
Similar to Wat Phnom, but certainly mot free of tourists, is the Royal Palace complex. This is a complex of ornate pagodas which still serves as the official residence of the King of Cambodia. Therefore, not all of it is open to tourists but the parts that are are truly spectacular.
The highlight for many visitors is a trip to the silver pagoda which contains a statue of an emerald Buddha. However, my habit of making my own opinions of a place, also applies to not getting overly excited by places that are overhyped. In my opinion this was certainly one of them. There are far more beautiful buildings elsewhere in the palace complex.
Alongside it’s architectural gems, Phnom Penh is also a shoppers paradise. With this in mind Janey excitedly explored the various different markets in the city in search of bargains. She was definitely not disappointed. Clothes, fresh fruit, fake jewellery and a plethora of other products can all be found. Be prepared to haggle and haggle well though!
Finally, at the end of our one full day in Cambodia’s capital (we were indeed in a hurry to get to Angkor), we visited a fantastic organisation that is helping to empower disabled people in the city. Seeing hands massage is staffed entirely by blind people, all of whom probably wouldn’t be able to work if it weren’t for the initiative of the charity. For just $7, you can get an hour long massage from wonderfully skilled masseuses. At the end not only do you feel incredibly relaxed, but you have just helped a person in need as well. What’s not to like?
The next day, whilst sitting on the Mekong Express to Siem Reap, I reflected back on Phnom Penh. Yes it was a lot of the things that it’s detractors stated it to be. But it was also magnificent. I loved it.
Seeing Hands massage is located at #34Eo, St 108, in front of Phsar Chass Park. Pay them a visit if you’re in Phnom Penh. It’s well worth it.